Higher Ed, Public Health, Students

Another Carolina commencement

May 11, 2016

Panoramic shot of our commencement in Carmichael Arena. Photo by Jennie Saia.

Gillings’ School commencement with Dennis Gillings

The Gillings School’s 76th commencement took place Saturday, May 7, on a beautiful Carolina day. About 400 of our 632 graduates celebrated in Carmichael Arena with their families, friends, faculty and staff. After processing to “Pomp and Circumstance,” played by the Amalgam String Quartet, the graduates heard from me and Dr. Laura Linnan, associate dean for academic and student affairs, as well as two of their fellow students, Ethan Wallenius-Caldwell and Kristin Voltze, our fabulous outgoing student government co-presidents. We celebrated Drs. Brian Pence and Carolyn Halpern, who received major awards for teaching and mentorship, and then Dr. Dennis Gillings, CBE, gave the commencement address, followed by the awarding of degrees and then best wishes from Paula Brown Stafford, Gillings alumna and chair of our Public Health Foundation Board.

Dr. Gillings spoke about medical progress over the past 100 years but also about the huge toll of diseases, such as dementias, that are increasing around the world. Yet, he offered the hope of prevention, treatments and even cures for dreaded diseases like dementia and cancers. He focused on what he referred to as “The Three M’s: Medicine, Money and Management.”

gillings addresses audience

Dr. Gillings addresses the audience. Photo by Linda Kastleman.

“These three domains are converging,” Gillings said. “What’s driving this convergence is EVIDENCE. Real-world evidence will become the basis for decision-making across all domains.

“Your challenge will be to make public health the management LEADER by using evidence to establish health policy and decision making for consequential problems, nationally and globally, and also at state and local levels. Let us change the public discourse on health care from a political blame-game to an evidence-based discussion about WHAT WORKS.”

I could not agree more. Evidence is the currency that can help us transcend arguments based on innuendo and emotion. Each of our graduates should have had a thorough grounding in evidence. Ideally, every doctoral graduate should have had the opportunity to participate in an evidence-review process. Those who didn’t should look for such opportunities as soon as possible. Real-world evidence is the kind of evidence one gets, not just from internally valid trials, but also from the science and practice of implementation, a major strength for our School. Real-world evidence is the kind of evidence needed for policy, decision making and practice.

view of grads from podium

My view of the graduates from the podium. Photo by Barbara Rimer.

Dr. Gillings challenged graduates and all of us to focus on closing three gaps:

First, the gap between rich and poor. In the U.S., the bottom 10 percent of wage earners die 14 years earlier than the top 10 percent. That’s double what it was in 1970.

Second, the gap in healthy life expectancy—now roughly 9 years.’ Of 30 years we gained in life expectancy from advances like Pasteur’s and Fleming’s, the last nine years, on average, are lived with dementia, arthritis, osteoporosis, diabetes and/or heart disease. That’s a tragic waste. Nearly a third of the gain has been dragged back. We must make our extended lives be years of high quality.

Third is the gap in life expectancy between developed and emerging nations. There’s been encouraging progress there—developing nations are catching up. Global life expectancy is now 71. Note: The Gavi global vaccine initiative has immunized more than 500 million children since 2000, and that will add more years to life expectancy.

Gillings also urged his audience to consider the United Kingdom’s legislation to reduce salt in processed foods.

“This may have resulted in 10 percent fewer deaths from heart attack and stroke,” he said. “In the U.S., reducing salt intake by one-third could save up to half a million lives and $100 billion over the next decade!

“It would be virtually impossible to pass salt-reduction legislation in the U.S. today. But you can assemble the evidence, provide leadership and push for action. It’s a big opportunity with big rewards. Think of it this way: You are joining an $8 trillion health industry with 7 billion customers.”

I agree with Dr. Gillings regarding both the opportunity and the difficulty of achieving a macro-intervention like salt reduction in the U.S. today. Ironically, one of our faculty members, Dr. Barry Popkin, is advising governments around the world how to use taxes and other policy interventions to reduce intake of sugary sodas and having a lot of success—including, recently, in Mexico. But while Mexico took this on, it is highly unlikely that such actions would ever be applied to the entire U.S.

Dr. Gillings’ speech was exceptional, with real vision for the role of public health and an agenda for a public health of consequence.

shaking hands with grads

Chamblee Distinguished Professor Dr. Peggy Bentley read the names of BSPH graduates, and then Dr. Gillings—who can be seen in the lower left greeting Student Government Co-president Ethan Wallenius-Caldwell—and I shook their hands. Photo by Linda Kastleman.



I gave the graduates some parting advice from the late Senator Ted Kennedy. He wrote in his autobiography about the greatest lesson he had learned, saying: “If you stick with it, work at it, persevere, you have a real opportunity to achieve something. Sure, there will be storms along the way. And you might not reach your goal right away. But, if you do your best and keep a true compass, persevere, you’ll get there.”

I honestly believe that’s some of the best advice ever, because it is not enough to be smart, rich or lucky, although I’d like to be all three. Whatever else, as an abiding trait necessary for success and impact, I believe that perseverance is essential.

Best wishes to our fabulous, awesome graduates. Thank you for choosing Gillings!


Dennis Gillings, PhD, CBE, co-founder and former chief executive officer Quintiles Transnational, former biostatistics faculty member, generous donor

DSC_1303 gillings at podium

Dr. Dennis Gillings is recognized as a visionary in the contract research organization industry. He is co-founder and former executive chair of Quintiles Transnational, the world’s largest biopharmaceutical services company.

In 2014, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Gillings as World Dementia Envoy. In this capacity, Gillings chaired the World Dementia Council, an organization that seeks to stimulate innovation to treat cognitive decline, and worked with governments around the world to address economic, regulatory and social barriers to innovation in dementia prevention, treatment and care.

Gillings has seen firsthand the devastating effects of dementia and lack of effective treatment, as his mother lived with the condition for 18 years until her death in 2013. Although he stepped down from the role as envoy in January 2016, he remains an active member of the Council.

Gillings, who earned a Bachelor of Science degree in mathematics (first-class honours) from the University of Exeter, a diploma in mathematical statistics from Cambridge University, and a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Exeter, has received several honorary degrees, including from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Prior to founding Quintiles, Gillings was a biostatistics professor at UNC’s public health school for more than 15 years. Among his honors is being awarded the Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in 2004 for services to the pharmaceutical industry. In 2012, he received the SCRIP Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of contributions to pharmaceuticals.

Gillings continues to be involved in private equity through NovaQuest and GHO Capital and in philanthropy through the Dennis and Mireille Gillings Foundation.

Want to leave a comment or contact us?
The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.